What Will We Watch As Drones Evolve? Drone technology is becoming increasingly affordable and accessible, with new potential for everyday use in the United States — and new worries for national security.
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What Will We Watch As Drones Evolve?

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What Will We Watch As Drones Evolve?

What Will We Watch As Drones Evolve?

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SCOTT SIMON, host: Every week it seems there are reports about U.S. drones - unmanned, remote-controlled aerial vehicles - tracking down suspected terrorists in remote, unreachable areas of Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan. But drones may soon be coming to a place near you. The technology is almost as accessible and affordable as a toy. My daughters have a remote-controlled helicopter - $29.99, batteries included.


SIMON: That whir is of its two, tiny plastic blades. Now it is a toy: too small to carry a camera, much less explosives. The only attack it can launch is on a father's shins.


SHANE HARRIS: Drones in a sense, have been around as long as people have been flying remote controlled airplanes, right, as long as hobbyists have been doing it.

SIMON: Shane Harris is a journalist and author of "The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State." We asked Mr. Harris and John Villasenor, a professor of electrical engineering at the UCLA, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, to come into our studios to talk about drones over America, the benefits that many people see and potential threats to homeland security, and U.S. interests abroad. Shane Harris began talking about the potential uses many people see in drones.

HARRIS: The Customs and border protection unit of the Homeland Security Department is experimenting with drones that are about the size of small birds for doing monitoring the border, monitoring people and traffic coming over the border. Drones have been used after natural disasters to go in and look for survivors. We actually saw that in Japan at the Fukushima plant, drones were used to go in and inspect the facilities there.

Imagine that you are running a SWAT team in a crisis, hostage crisis standoff situation, and rather than put one of your officers in harm's way to go inspect what's going on inside the house, you have a drone the size of a spider that can skitter up onto the windowsill and look inside the window and see what's going on. You're likely to see drones used in mass farming, where you might have crop dusters replaced by drones. You might have drones that go out and hover over livestock herds and actually herd cattle. Why not?

You might see traffic helicopter pilots being replaced by drones. These are some of the near-term uses that really make a lot of sense, in that the technology could do right now if it were put to use that way.

SIMON: Could the same technology be used to fly a jumbo jet?

HARRIS: Theoretically, yes. Maybe one day UPS and FedEx will no longer have people flying air cargo planes. It could certainly be much more efficient. They could perhaps fly routes that human beings can't fly. They certainly don't have to take breaks the way that humans do. Then that sort of raises the question well, would we ever feel comfortable, we people, getting on a Delta or an American Airlines flight that didn't have a pilot in it?

SIMON: Well, and as you say, drones don't need breaks.

HARRIS: Right.

SIMON: So there's no cancellation because the crew just got in from Rochester...


SIMON: And they have to be - they have to break for 12 hours before they can fly again.

HARRIS: Right. Sure. Absolutely.

SIMON: Let's bring in now John Villasenor, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Are there national security implications in all of this?

JOHN VILLASENOR: I certainly think there are. One thing that I've noticed is that the dialogue is almost always carried out from our perspective. How should we use drones? Should we use drones? Should we expand our use of drones? And I think with the inevitable proliferation issues we have to also consider the inverse problem, which is what happens when people consider using drones against us? And to the extent that drones are becoming significantly smaller, more widely available and less expensive, it becomes more difficult to ensure that they don't fall into the wrong hands.

SIMON: Carefully, could you give us an example?

VILLASENOR: Drones obviously fly. We have a society where we have walls and fences and gates to prevent people from going places that they shouldn't go, and if you can fly you can obviously go over those walls and fences and gates. And so drones can do that and make it possible for a larger set of people to do that in ways that weren't possible or at least weren't easy before.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. We heard that Aum Shinrikyo at one point was interested in acquiring drones. Do you know about that?

VILLASENOR: Yes. My understanding from reading stories about that is that they, I suppose that it was helicopters that they were pondering using in some of the attacks they eventually did carry out in Tokyo. Although, I also understand that in the end they, of course, decided to use other means. But it's a sobering example because here you have a group of people who were absolutely bent on and in fact did create a terror attack and...

SIMON: This is in the Tokyo subway system, (unintelligible) people.

VILLASENOR: Yes, in the Tokyo subway system a number of years ago and drones were absolutely on their radar screen. So it stands to reason that they will be on the radar screen of other such groups in the future.

SIMON: What kind of different or advanced step does this represent about the threats that we can already identify?

VILLASENOR: I think what's notable about this is the speed at which the technology has changed. It's almost been while we weren't looking. If you look at what you can put in your pocket these days in terms of the smartphone, the capabilities that smartphones have, that same technology now makes it possible to have drones, which can literally fit in a backpack or the trunk of a car, or even the palm of your hand.

And so you can imagine a world where you might be being attacked not by one drone but by a swarm of 150 of them. And how in the world would the world would you defend against that? And you might consider that well, at the cost of some very large amount of money they do you can put some defensive system that would actually somehow take these down. But then you'd have to be careful that you don't simply vaporize every poor sparrow that happens to fly near a government building. So it's a complicated situation.

SIMON: Let's bring in Shane Harris again, author of "The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State." As you see it, Mr. Harris, what are some of the implications for privacy?

HARRIS: You know, I think there are really profound implications. The machines can do things that we can't do, right? The machines can watch in ways that we can't watch.

When you're talking about putting up a drone with a camera versus, you know, having a cop on a stakeout, let's say, sitting outside a house, it's a much more profound kind of sense of invasion, too. Because now you're talking not just about the limits of surveillance being how many cops can we put on the street or how many helicopters can put over the air, but really these very small systems - dozens of them let's just say - over - pick a neighborhood, put them there.

To me that's really what we haven't kind of started to really address from the standpoint of how these things are going to start proliferating. And once they're out there it's going to be very hard to pull them back, I think.

SIMON: Let me ask you both. Is there a kind of drone arms race going on where the major participants aren't just one, two or three countries but many more? Shane Harris first.

HARRIS: Yeah, I think that there is. There is a sort of race starting in this area. So there are right now about 50 countries that use surveillance drones. Not very many that use armed drones the way that we do.

But a lot of the sort of rising super power - China being a great example, recently had a big air show where they displayed many of the drones that they were trying to build and sort of trumpeted the fact that in various animations that they put out for people to see that they're building drones that can go out and attack aircraft carriers that look suspiciously like U.S. aircraft carriers.

So they are definitely sending a signal to us and to other countries that you're not the only ones who are going to be able to build these things and to fly them. We're there, too, and we want it as well.

SIMON: John Villasenor?

VILLASENOR: ..TEXT: Yeah, the China case is particularly interesting. There was a detailed and very informative article in the Washington Post about the Chinese drone program stating that the Chinese apparently have an intent not only to develop these things but to also aggressively market them on the international market.

SIMON: So it's not only the 50 countries, including a very prominent and rich one like China, that might develop forms of the technology we'd have to worry about, but it's the 100 countries they can sell it to.

VILLASENOR: ..TEXT: And that's a great point. I think the reason this can happen is that this technology in many ways isn't much different than what you have in a smartphone or a tablet or a laptop computer. That's why all these people can have access to it. This isn't your father's drone where you had to be a very, very well funded, very sophisticated military laboratory. In fact, a lot of the parts for these drones are available at electronic stores in every country in the world.

SIMON: Without getting carried away and recognizing a lot of projections turn out very differently than what people thought, are we at the point where, I mean, if I feel something on the back of my neck it's either a gnat or a Chinese drone?

VILLASENOR: ..TEXT: Next year? No. I think if you feel something on the back of your neck it's probably a mosquito. But seven, eight, ten, fifteen years from now, it's certainly I think going to be possible to have drones that are incomprehensibly small by today's standards.

SIMON: And affordable?

VILLASENOR: ..TEXT: Not only affordable but probably genuinely cheap.

SIMON: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

VILLASENOR: ..TEXT: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you very much.

SIMON: Shane Harris, who's author of "The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State," and John Villasenor of the Brookings Institution.

We contacted the Department of Homeland Security for their perspective or reaction. They didn't get back to us for an interview or comment.


SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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